December 10th, 2019
The end of the first week of most COPs is probably what is best described as ‘peak pessimism’.
The public servants have laboured all week in placing square brackets in their text around possible options. Loathe taking any decision that would be seen to be against the national interest many negotiators leave the ultimate decision to their political masters who arrived this week.
In a parallel session in a huge, but often sparsely attended hall, each Minister/Head of Government is allowed three minutes to extol their national contributions to tackling climate change. The speeches are carefully contrived normally to express the positive aspects, and the underlying reality, for many, of increasing national emissions is seldom mentioned.
Experiencing the Prime Minister of a small island devastated by a never before experienced intense tropical cyclone, breaking down and crying before a global audience, is a sobering experience. It evokes strong emotions of the need for climate justice that smother the facile economic arguments that we frequently hear from developed countries to justify their inaction.
The pessimism of deadlocked negotiations has been lifted slightly by some encouraging events over the past few days, not least for the small Irish NGO delegation here. A positive meeting with officials from the Department of Climate Action enabled the concerns of Irish civil society to be aired.
While specific answers to most questions were not always forthcoming, at least there were encouraging noises that Ireland would be supporting the EU position on several aspects where no deal would be better than a bad deal.
Green New Deal
The EU is about to reveal a Green New Deal this week and the new Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans presented an upbeat assessment of how the future might shape up. Most tellingly, he emphasised that the EU will not hesitate to impose border taxes on products from countries not playing their part in implementing their greenhouse gas pledges.
This would be done to protect European industry from unfair competition and would possibly represent a landmark departure for climate change policy into the realm of the World Trade Organisation.
Positive negotiations with China were also envisaged next year and the continuing progress made by individual states in the USA, irrespective of the federal non-cooperation with the Paris Agreement, were also flagged. On the negative side however, he was not encouraging about the finalisation of the new EU pledges before the end of 2020, a divisive aspect within a two speed Europe.
One of the most powerful events so far came with the Fridays for Future activists. Ireland’s Theo Mouze delivered a superb presentation, with the venue packed out half an hour before it started.
The power of youth
A long queue of disappointed people was evident as the event featured five articulate and knowledgeable young people on a platform with five Ministers from various countries, ably chaired by our very own Mary Robinson.
The new power of youth was similarly in evidence at two events, both again turning away large numbers of attendees, featuring the planet’s most influential game changer, Greta Thunberg.
With her quietly determined and concise call to heed the science, not the vested interest groups, she made compelling listening and has encouraged a new generation of young, mostly female, activists to provide the leadership that has been missing for so many years. These voices have been springing up throughout the COP and will ultimately develop into an electoral force to be reckoned with.
The next few days will tell the tale of whether countries here will face up to the commitments they signed up to in Paris, or whether the large numbers of interested groups here to make a profit out of carbon trading rather than protecting the legacy of the next generation win out. The stakes are unbelievably high and the ‘egg timer’ of the remaining carbon budget is fast emptying.
By Professor John Sweeney
John is emeritus professor of geography, Maynooth University and has taught and researched various aspects of climate change for over 35 years.